For the first time in Orange County’s history, Latino voters will be a majority in a county supervisor’s district – a legally-required change that’s expected to bring a greater voice and representation on approaching key issues like public health and homelessness.

But the next year of representation is set to be unusual – with someone from outside the district serving as the central county supervisor.

The new district, centered on Santa Ana and Anaheim, is bringing hope that Latinos will have stronger representation on the five-member Board of Supervisors, which has not had a Latino serve a full four-year term since the 1990s, despite being one third of the county population.

[Click here to see a map of the new supervisor districts.]

“I see that there’s an opportunity for there to be a different voice on the board to reflect some of the priorities that haven’t been addressed,” Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said in a phone interview.

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The county has a major role to play in addressing key issues facing the city, such as homelessness, affordable housing, public health services and addressing a major shortage of open space.

“I think it will be helpful to have these new lines. So I’m certainly hopeful that it’s going to render good results,” said Sarmiento, who is running for the central county supervisor seat.

Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen, who is the other known candidate for the central county District 2 seat, noted it’s been over 15 years years since a Latino served on the Board of Supervisors.

“There’s going to be an individual who comes from our community, who lives through our experiences…and who can advocate on our behalf in a way that it hasn’t for so long,” Nguyen said in an interview.

While Latinos are 34% of OC residents, for the last decade Latino voters have seen their voting power diminished through a map that split them in half between two supervisor districts and combined the community in Santa Ana with Vietnamese-Americans in Little Saigon.

This time, the county’s attorneys publicly acknowledged such a map would be illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act, and county supervisors were legally required to draw a Latino-majority district centered on Santa Ana and Anaheim.

A ‘Weird’ Year for Central OC Representation

For the next year, however, the Latino-majority district will be the only one represented entirely by someone who wasn’t elected in that district.

That’s because a majority of county supervisors opted to have the new districts take effect immediately – nearly a year before the election – as opposed to waiting until the next election.

So for the next year, Supervisor Katrina Foley – who was elected by residents in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach – is instead representing a completely different district of Santa Ana, Anaheim, Orange, Tustin and east Garden Grove.

Foley says that’s unfair to the residents who elected her.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to the residents of the current [coastal] District 2 who voted for a representative, and it’s also a disruption for our office and the representation for the new District 2” centered on Santa Ana and Anaheim, she said in a phone interview.

“It’s just political gamesmanship. Because most counties, cities, states and federal government all enact the maps the following year, after the election. They don’t disrupt the offices. And it happens that my district – the current District 2 – is the only district that was 100% removed from their representative,” she added.

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The other four county supervisors didn’t return messages for comment.

“It’s very disruptive, but I will overcome – as I always do. And we have a plan, and we will serve the residents of Santa Ana and the greater area of [the new] District 2,” Foley added.

Thomas Gordon, a Santa Ana resident who serves on the county GOP’s Central Committee, says it’s strange that someone who’s not from the area will be representing his city for the next year.

“It’s weird,” Gordon said in an interview.

“So you’ve got somebody who’s not from here, who doesn’t understand the issues. Santa Ana is grappling with such huge things – the homelessness, the really high tax rates, the Measure X taxes, the marijuana taxes,” he added.

But at the end of the day, it’s up to the public to hold their elected officials accountable – no matter what party they’re from, Gordon said.

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OC Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño said the new map will give a major boost to Latino representation – and creates a solid Democrat-majority district in central OC where one didn’t exist before.

“As Democrats, we’re excited to see we have a solid chance to figure out if we can take that seat…that’s our seat,” Briceño said in an interview. “And we have a good possibility of having firm Democratic representation on the board.”

She added that it’s critical that efforts stay focused on addressing the underlying challenges facing local communities.

“We have to make sure that the issues the community faces are addressed, like the COVID vaccine gap, housing issues,” Briceño said.

OC Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker and Executive Director Randall Avila didn’t return phone messages for comment.

Should Politicians Choose Their Voters?

Chapman University public policy professor Mike Moodian is among many local politics observers who question if politicians should be the ones drawing the lines that determine which voters get to cast ballots for and against them.

“When you put this in the hands of the politicians, at the end of the day, they’re going to do what suits their best interests,” Moodian said.

Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma said it’s inherently political when politicians pick voting maps.

“Of course, these incumbents not only want to protect themselves – as any self-interested elected official would,” Balma said.

She said while county supervisor offices are officially nonpartisan, it’s a different story in practice as candidates seek their respective party’s endorsement.

“I’m not sure in 2021 if there’s any office that’s truly non-partisan,” Balma said, noting candidates for school boards and city councils are running with partisan endorsements.

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Both Moodian and Balma say they’ve seen a much fairer approach from the California Citizens Redistricting Commission – the panel of evenly-split Republicans and Democrats that draws Congressional and state legislative lines.

The commission is required to have five registered Democrats, five registered Republicans, four members with no party preference – all of whom have to show they have no conflicts of interest, with state auditors vetting them and making sure they’re randomly picked.

After the commission redrew the lines in 2010, state and Congressional elections in OC became much more competitive, Balma noted.

“Competition is good for a number of reasons,” she said.

“To everyone but the political parties and candidates.”

New Map Shakes Up Coastal and South County Supervisor Contests

One consequence of the new map is that leading candidates in the coastal and south county districts were then combined into one district – pitting them against each other and meaning only one could emerge a winner.

Previously, Republican Diane Harkey and Democrat Joe Kerr were squaring off in south county, while in the coastal district Foley was being challenged by Republicans Diane Dixon, Kevin Muldoon and Mike Posey.

Now – with most of south county being grouped in with Costa Mesa and Newport Beach – Foley was slated to face off against Harkey, Kerr, Dixon and Muldoon.

Posey, who’s a Huntington Beach councilman, was put in a separate district.

The combining of districts led two of the candidates to drop out – Dixon switched to running for Assembly and endorsed Harkey, while Kerr bowed out and endorsed Foley.

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In interviews, the candidates said they’re ready to keep campaigning and introducing themselves to parts of the county that may not be familiar with them.

‘I don’t think there’s anybody that really understands south county better than I do,” said Harkey, the OC Republican Party-endorsed candidate, noting the district “is really south county-focused.”

“Obviously it’s going to be hard, a lot harder than just south county. But I think I’ve got a really good shot at winning this,” added Harkey, who’s a former Dana Point mayor, Assemblywoman and state Board of Equalization member.

She noted the rest of the district is “pretty conservative” except for Laguna Beach.

Foley, who’s a Democrat and former mayor of Costa Mesa, says she’s going to continue knocking on doors.

“I’m going to gather my nearly 3,000 volunteers and we’re going to hit the streets,” said Foley “I’m going to continue to raise money over the break to continue to be competitive, and I’m going to continue to do a good job in the district.”

Muldoon didn’t return a message for comment.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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